A Bunch of Bad Reasons for Not Writing

blindmansbluffUnlikely as it is, I have done my most intense and productive writing during summer months–except for that one summer when the irises of my eyes got inflamed and I temporarily lost a good portion of my vision for about a month and could not write at all (well, hardly at all). The inflammation may or may not have been the result of too much time spent looking at an old, fuzzy laptop screen, writing.

In light of this–and many, many other things–I am probably not someone to model oneself after, but if you’re out on the interwebs right now looking for a pep-talk to keep you writing through the summer, consider this it.

A writing atmosphere of bad, cozy weather is one of the stereotypes repeated on “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards where the aesthetic is all sweaters, cats, and hot drinks. Setting up any kind of external setting or internal personality or background as essential for writing is counter-productive, usually elitist, and simply irritating for writers interested in actually finishing a writing project. So enough of that. No more passwords or potions, no rites or effete orthodoxies, no self-indulgent mythologies about who writers ought to be. No more talking about writing in a way that draws only the ‘right’ kinds of people into thinking of themselves as writers, trusting themselves as writers, and braving the risks needed to publish. Enough. Ignore it.

 

You can write even if:

  • You weren’t a bookish child. Don’t worry if you can’t stare into the middle distance, all dreamy, and claim your best friends growing up were books. If your best friends were actually people (and I’ll bet that, for just about everyone, they were) you are better off in every way, including as a writer.
  • You aren’t a voracious reader now. It’s true writers have to read in order to learn who we are and how to do what we do. It’s true writers owe everything to readers. Thanks for reading this right now. But you don’t always have to have someone else’s book on hand in order to have something of your own to write.
  • You have kids. Writing will be much more difficult and distracted with constant kids in your life. You knew that going into this. But it can be done. Virginia Woolf was wrong about this one. Trust Shirley Jackson, and Ursula LeGuin, and Zadie Smith, and hundreds of other people writing in the teeth of their offsprings’ childhoods.
  • You don’t drink too much coffee. It’s just short term gain.
  • You don’t drink too much alcohol. It’s just long term pain.
  • You aren’t a native speaker of the language in which you want to write. In fact, newness to a language might be an asset (I’m staking my MA thesis on it, so I sure hope so). No one experiments with a language in original ways, no one wrings new things out of the same old lexicon like someone who has learned it as a second language and approaches it free from the cliches and conventions native speakers have been bound by since we were babies.
  • You don’t have an MFA in creative writing. Whatever your education or experience is, it is part of your training as a writer and the weirder, less prescribed it is, the better it is, in my opinion.
  • You’re allergic to cats.
  • You get along with your family. In fact, make sure you write something if you get along with your family. The literary world needs more families who find conflict in things other than breaking each other’s hearts.

There it is. No excuses, no exclusions. All the best this summer!

外国人去过北京 or, Mute Dragon and Stuttering Phoenix Have No Idea How to Relax

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I have trouble writing the monuments of my life. This summer has been rife with them. In June I attended the birth of my sister’s second-born, my own second-born’s high school graduation, and the veterinary clinic where we signed off on ending the suffering of the nasty little birdie who’d been our pet for over six years. All of it happened without much written comment from me. That will come later, in small ways, image by image as I properly take it in and bleed it out. July began with another monument, which I will post pictures of here at the very least, though I sense it will take years and years to write the whole of it.

My husband and I have just returned from China. Midway through our tour of Beijing, I posted the picture above, captioning it, “The Great Wall 长城, like everything about this place, is both far more amazing and more difficult up close.” A friend asked what I meant by difficult. Well, biased by childhood field trips to stone parapets of British forts made into National Parks in Maritime Canada, I expected the Great Wall to be something like a raised walking trail—all the dangerous parts closed off or refitted to modern standards. But the Beijing section of the wall runs along the top of a mountain range, like a spine on a rippling dragon’s back. The wall is made of stones and brick, dropping off in steep slopes, rising in uneven flights of stairs. In places,metal handrails have been added, long rusted red. Visiting the wall is not a walk but a hike, a climb. Despite the difficulty, it is crowded with people, all kinds of people: foreign athletes showing off their soccer moves, Chinese kids striking Kung Fu poses for their parents’ cameras, tough Chinese grannies unpacking bag lunches, and us, a blond waiguoren couple.

This has been my experience with everything Chinese. It is all more complicated and more difficult than anyone can tell looking at it from afar. The complexity is part of what makes

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The Temple of Heaven, where I might have cried a little

it beautiful almost to the point of surreality. My contact with it humbles and chastises me—at times, punishes me–but I keep following after it anyway. Every time I think about setting it aside, something pulls me back. I can’t turn around in China without crashing face-to-face into myself, even while there is nothing there at all like myself. It may be a place to lose myself in order to find myself.

In Beijing we visited the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, towers and temples and shops. We cleared security and stood in Tiananmen Square, but didn’t queue for the two hours in the hot sun it would have taken to get into Mao’s tomb to see his body lying in a crystal coffin. We did go into The Underground Palace, an empty tomb of a Ming emperor and his two empresses. Their bodies had been removed and destroyed by the Red Guard decades ago. On our way inside, a beautiful princess-girl, just a little younger than the Red Guard would have been when they came here, approached me with delicate English. “Excuse me, would you like to take a picture with me?” She answered when I called her 妹妹 meimei, little sister.

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At Mao’s Tomb in Tiananmen Square

Maybe it sounds forced or phony but believe me when I say the best part of our tour of China was the people, the ones I spoke to and the ones I didn’t. I liked the way, instead of being equipped with a whistle, the boat at the Summer Palace had a loud speaker the captain used to call out scoldings to the smaller boats drifting into his path as we chugged across the lake. I liked the way our cab driver changed his manner of speech when he pronounced the name Mao Zedong—something between esteem and perhaps sarcasm, impossible to tell, so perfect, so Chinese. At night, along the old city moat not far from our hotel, people gathered to sing and dance until the police sent them home at 10pm. Some of them danced in unison, through steps they came together to learn and practice even when the nights were hot and smoggy. We sat on the edges of the patios, with the dancers’ pet dogs and the men with their t-shirts rolled up over their bellies, all of them smoking like it’s 1977, and we watched.

Speaking and understanding Chinese in a classroom is something I can do with hours of careful preparation. Speaking and understanding Chinese in the streets is different. In our

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Beijing Nightlife on the Moat

native language, my husband and I are professional communicators—people paid and petted for our skills in verbal and written expression. In China, my husband is illiterate and has a vocabulary limited to “thank you, hello, right, Canadian.” He was mistaken for Russian, which he also does not speak. But he loves me and came on a trip where he became the big, quiet bodyguard the cab driver was glancing at in the rear-view mirror, asking me what’s wrong with him. He could have booked a vacation on nearly any beach in this world, but instead he came to Beijing—to the heat and smog and smell—so I could grow a little.

As for me, I could barely read and every verbal interaction I had was a smoking wreck. There was a lot of me saying “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” a lot of helpful Chinese restating of what I’d just tried to say only with the better vocabulary and pronunciation. Every time I was corrected, I said thank you because I was thankful. I didn’t go to China to leave just as stupid as I arrived. There were also kind compliments, encouragement, surprised nods whenever I managed to order rice without sounding like a beggar. Back at the hotel, I’d lay awake going over everything I’d said, recognizing mistakes too late, wishing I’d done better. And then it’d all flip inside out and I’d be shaking my exhausted husband, raving, “I used the Chinese! I did it. Did you hear me?”

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Husby and  獬豸xiezhi, good-lookin’ pair, hardly anyone can say they’re as tall as a Chinese unicorn.

Late in the afternoon, after the Great Wall, our tour guide took us to The Sacred Way, a lavish imperial graveyard we had to swipe our thumbprints to get into. It was a long flagstone avenue lined with trees full of magpies, and old statues of standing and crouching animals. Our guide brought us to the Chinese unicorn, the symbol of law and judiciary, a respectful acknowledgement of my husband’s true identity as an erudite member of the justice system in our home country. We stopped to take this picture, long enough for China to make one more tug at me. A swallow-tail butterfly flitted out of a hedge and alighted on the top of my foot. On the stones of The Sacred Way, I stood still and waited as the creature fanned its wings.

Eight Scary Things You Might Not Know About Studying Chinese

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This is Jay Chou. He sings and plays piano and cello for me while I study.

I really should be studying for the grammar exam and the oral presentation I need to perform in finely articulated Chinese tomorrow. I have, I will. But first, some completely unproductive catharsis. I give you eight scary things you might not know about studying Chinese:

  • Reading fancy Chinese characters – that’s the easy part. It’s a task of rote memorization which, while grueling, isn’t actually complicated and can be achieved to perfection. Who gets full marks on vocabulary tests? In my class, we all do.
  • The hardest part of learning Chinese is understanding ANYTHING people are saying out loud. Even if we had ears perfectly tuned to “tones” — the prescribed accents Chinese speakers use, changing the pitches of their voices while pronouncing vowels — Chinese might still seem like a handful of short words that all sound pretty much the same. The language has an abundance of homophones. English has them too – words like meet, meat, and mete—but Chinese has many, many more. It’s a language with a “limited sound palette” which is a pretty way of saying that without a sound understanding of context, it’s impossible to tell one word from another without being able to see their written characters (though some of the characters look the same but are pronounced differently and have different meanings because even the easiest things are not easy here).
  • It takes twice as many hours of instruction in Chinese than it does in ANY OTHER LANGUAGE offered at my large, world-class university to be considered an “intermediate” level student. And judging from myself, by “intermediate” level they must mean someone who still bursts into tears when being spoken to at normal conversational speed.
  • There is no “It” as we Anglophones know it in Chinese. Yup, unless we’re talking about a pronoun for animals or other specific objects under certain circumstances only, there is no “It.” We can’t say “It’s raining” in Chinese. We can’t say “It seems like you’re frustrated.” Speaking Chinese is like a Monty Python skit that way. You know Monty Python, the quintessential ENGLISH sketch comedy troupe, who imagined nothing could be more linguistically nonsensical than speaking without ever saying “It.” Haha, welcome to China, ignorant old Pythons.
  • The absence of “It” is just the beginning. Chinese also has no plurals as we know them, no capitalization, no verb declension. In all the materials I’ve ever seen meant to encourage students to choose Chinese, “simple grammar” is touted as a benefit. It’s faulty reasoning. English grammar isn’t simple. We don’t like simple grammar. We don’t trust it. We can’t handle it. We overthink it, tacking on superfluous prepositions and pronouns, getting hung up on details Chinese doesn’t care about while ignoring things it cares deeply about. For instance, if we’re using Chinese to describe someone in the middle of doing a task that can’t last for very long, we use different grammar than if we’re talking about someone in the middle of a task that can last a long time. Simple, right? Maybe, but the Anglos are all back at the beginning arguing about what the concept of “can’t last for very long” might actually mean. And the Chinese grammar that stands somewhere near the place of our dear English past tense – well, it seems scattered and piecemeal to us, chaotic, and as one professor famously says, just plain “evil.” So I don’t want to hear ONE MORE WORD about how Chinese grammar is simple.
  • Studying Chinese brings a sense of contempt for the idea of studying other, less punishing languages. I admit it was not one of my finest hours when I scoffed at a bilingual friend, telling him that, especially here in Canada, “Reading French is like
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    Mynah birds, alien experts in mimicking human speech

    grocery shopping. Reading Chinese is a super power.” Nice one, Jenny. Still, the idea that a foreign language could be spoken with some recognition just by sounding it out in letters we’ve known since we were babies, the idea that two languages might share cognates or at least words with the same roots that can be decoded if one is clever and knowledgeable of one’s mother tongue – all that comes completely apart for English speakers studying Chinese. We approach it like we’re mynah birds.

  • It takes a whole community to learn Chinese. It’s not a task for Google Image searching tattoo enthusiasts or loners in dark basements watching Kung Fu movies with the subtitles turned off. Learning Chinese demands a mortification of the ego in every way. Lay down that pride. We sound like toddlers but we speak out loud in a crowded room anyway. We cry for help, rely on everyone, all our linguistic brothers and sisters at arms. Sure, all language classes include group work and partnerships. But in my many years of school, I’ve never seen anything like the camaraderie of a Chinese class.
  • Chinese students – especially people from my Western and girlie demographic – need to be prepared to explain themselves. After all this ranting and venting we need to have answers for obvious questions about why we’re studying this language when there are more attainable languages much closer to home. What’s our problem? What happened to us? 怎么了?My reasons for choosing Chinese are complicated and idealistic. I still believe in them. But lately, I’ve taken to replying with, “What? Why’d I pick Chinese? Uh, who knows? It seems like a long time ago now…”

Anyways, sorry about the shouting. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day. Listen to some Jay Chou music. As for me, as one of my fellow English-people says, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…”